The first two reasons for the shift in orphanage populations in China are both positive ones – an evolving attitude towards girls and the sharp increase in domestic adoption. The third major reason, however, is quite sad.
Birth defects in China have risen 70% in the last decade. (See Source 1). Mr. Jiang Fan, of the National Population and Family Planning Commission stated that birth defects now affect one in ten households in China, with a child being born every 30 seconds with a medical need. Chinese reports place the number of children being born with special needs each year at between 1-3 million (See Source 2), compared to the estimate by the March of Dimes that 120,000 babies are born with birth defects each year in the United States. One of the reasons cited for the marked increase in China is environmental pollution, as the World Health Organization states that China is home to 16 of the world’s dirtiest cities. (See Sources 3, 4, 5, 7). The most common birth defects in China include congenital heart disease, extra fingers and toes, cleft lip and palate, and neural tube defects…but the special needs range from mild to severe and affect every body system.
With this increased rate of birth defects has come a rise in the abandonment of children with medical needs. As I stated in the first blog of this series, orphanage directors now tell me that 90-98% of the children entering their care have some sort of special need. The majority of these children are abandoned for one of two main reasons: the stigma surrounding children with birth defects and the high cost of medical treatment.
There are still many superstitions and misinformation about birth defects in China, especially for visible special needs. These children are sometimes seen as cursed or unlucky, and many times, it is the extended family who will not allow a child with a special need to remain in the family circle. I have met dozens of parents in China who have told me that they were pressured by family members to abandon their children born with cleft. And while the stigma of being born a girl is now fading, the stigma of being born with special needs is still deeply entrenched. We are definitely starting to see positive signs, however, that this is slowly changing, as just in the last two years, more and more children with repaired cleft lip and heart defects have been chosen for domestic adoption from our programs. This is an encouraging step, indeed.
Other children with special needs are abandoned because their families don’t have enough money to pay for their medical care. I know many Westerners think China must have free health care, but that isn’t the case. Medical procedures — even emergency surgeries — will often not be done unless families can pay upfront. Last year, China reported that 128 million people in its country still live on less than $1 a day. (See Source 6) Ten years ago, when we first began doing medical care in China, a heart surgery cost $3,000 to $5,000 USD. That price has now tripled to approximately $10,000 to $15,000 to save a child’s life…an amount far beyond most impoverished families living on $300-$500 per year.
We have seen rural families truly desperate to see their child healed, even crying and offering to give their children permanently to our team members if it might mean that he or she could be saved. For parents without hope, sometimes abandonment seems like the only answer. Many of the newly abandoned children we are asked to help have needle marks or other indications that their parents tried to get them care. For example, we were once asked to help a six-year-old boy who was abandoned in a grocery store who still had IV marks in his arm. He had severe heart disease, and I have to believe that his parents tried to help him but ultimately came to the sad realization that they just couldn’t afford his operation.
Now when I visit orphanages, almost every crib is filled with a baby who requires some sort of medical care. This of course presents very new and complex challenges for the orphanage staff, especially in rural areas. Nannies are now serving not only as caregivers, but as nurses, special education teachers, and therapists as well. On Monday, I will discuss a few of these challenges and then conclude this series with why I feel that international adoption is still vitally important.
~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer